A definition of attachment attributed to Venerable Shi Yong Shiang is “becoming fixated to our ideas about people, places, things and concepts in a way that fails to recognize their impermanent, changing and evolving natures.” When we fail or choose not to recognize the fact that something will change or evolve, we’re unprepared for when it does. One of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths is “Ignorance is the lack of understanding of how our mind is attached to impermanent things.”
Change is at the very heart of impermanence; if we vest completely in things without providing for the inevitability of change, we stand to experience loss and the pain that goes with it. Try and think of anything that isn’t subject to change. Difficult, if not impossible, isn’t it? Yet we stake our hearts and minds on something as it stands right now, or as we remember it to be, and inevitably suffer when circumstances differ.
Buddhists strive to mitigate the pain from this kind of loss by cultivating equanimity through the practice of non-attachment. This requires the understanding that attachment and detachment are active principles, while non-attachment is neutral. When we let go of attachment and detachment, we get non-attachment, which provides space for the calming equanimity from which compassion and loving kindness can spring.
A simple example of this process was the difficulty Pete and I experienced with lifestyle changes. It was hard for me to say goodbye to antique furniture. When I thought about this further, I realized I was attached to the memories I associated with my table and chairs, and feared there would be no more happy times without them. Pete had trouble letting go of his many tools. He was attached to the feelings of competence and accomplishment that he got from using them to fix and build. We realized we would be unable to set the stage for change without letting go of our attachments to these things, which eventually found a useful home with others.
Richard Paterson, of Free Your Mind Coaching tells us “when we are dependent upon external factors such as relationships, jobs, finances, etc. for our sense of well-being, we will naturally have a strong investment in things turning out a particular way and most likely create suffering for ourselves.”
The Venerable Wayne Hughes (Ren-Cheng), an ordained Buddhist monk who offers Buddhist and meditation instruction through the Engaged Dharma blog and leads the St. Louis Chapter of the Center for Pragmatic Buddhism, describes attachment as “a negative disposition that can become a major source of psychoemotional anguish and unsatisfactoriness. It comes from not realizing the impermanent nature of ourselves and of the world around us, and of resisting those inevitable changes. We become disconnected from reality-as-it-really-is because we cling to and crave our own expectations of reality.”
Cherie DiNoia realized attachment to the fifteen years of effort she had put into building her business (and the identity she associated with it) was at the root of the anger and disappointment that took over when it looked like her company would fail. It took courage for her to admit that while she was good at her business, it wasn’t bringing her the peace and happiness she really wanted. And she realized she was attached to the idea that happiness could only result if she did things in a certain way. When Cherie thought in terms of the business failure presenting her with opportunities for new pursuits, she was able to let go with equanimity.
Paterson believes that we are already complete within ourselves whether we realize it or not; we ourselves ARE peace and happiness and need only recognize that fact. He believes we actively abandon inner peace by interpreting our beliefs as fact, thereby failing to notice unhappiness as originating in our thoughts. Evelyn Lim expands: “When you are attached to your desire, your mind is in the future. You are worried that whatever you wish for will not come true. However, when you direct your focus to the present, your mind becomes occupied with what can be done right this moment.” When we are aware of our attachments and the strategies we are using to detach, we can acknowledge them for what they are. Through this awareness, they diminish and are replaced by non-attachment.
Non-attachment, according to Julie Miller of Lightworkers, requires patience and practice. The more we practice the awareness, the more open we become to calmness and serenity. Miller tells us, “Compassion infuses this calmness with warmth and aliveness. This is the route to true happiness.”
V. Hughes believes non-attachment is a “corrective view” that we can use in conjunction with our personal goals and professional objectives, and in our relationships. He is quick to note that non-attachment doesn’t mean we abandon love and enjoyment of the world, but that we do recognize that change is inevitable in all these aspects. When we cling to our expectations, we succumb to the wish that things remain suspended in sameness, which by their nature, they cannot do.
These ideas have relevance for those of us who are disappointed and frustrated. Whether we’ve arrived at mid-life yet to achieve career fulfillment, or have left a string of failed relationships behind us, honestly examining the role of attachment in each of the problematic situations can lead to insights we can use to create balance and healthy expectations. This sets the stage for positive change to occur.